Crossing the road & other big adventures

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March 12th 2007
Published: March 19th 2007
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The flight from Singapore was a real pain: Willy didn't sleep at all, though I slept quite well, but in exceptionally contorted positions and woke up really sore. Despite the discomfort Willy spent a pleasant couple of hours watching Happy Feet but it was an 11 hour flight, plus an hour stopover in Dubai so that still left a lot of time to kill. We got off the plane in Dubai for just over an hour to stretch our legs and stave off DVT and also so that Willy could have a cigarette.

Arrival in Cairo was a bit of a shock after previous airports - Cairo International airport looks like it was built in the 60s and hasn't been updated since. We purchased our visas with the US dollars I'd stashed carefully in my hat last October and got through immigration surprisingly quickly and then waited for Yvonne's driver Ali to pick us up. We had to wait tilll he completed the school run, so it was 9.30 before he arrived.

We passed the time looking at the arabic characters and unsuccesfully trying to identify potential words. Impossible (but we can read arabic numbers now).

The drive back to Yvonne's appartment was our introduction to Cairo traffic, which is just unbelievable. Everyone drives fast, toots their horns, there is no lane discipline, few traffic lights and those that exist seem to be for decoration only. The central reservation is a place for sitting in packs waiting to do u turns. Pedestrians apparently assume cars will stop and just head out into the traffic, looking neither to right nor left: Yvonne says if you make eye contact with the driver he'll not stop for you, but if you act as if you're blind they will. This theory has worked for us so far ( The Lonely Planet guide books recommend using locals as a human shield!) One taxi driver complained that the Americans he drives are upset when he takes his hands off the wheel to turn round and talk to them: he's confident he can drive perfectly safely without either looking at the road or having control of the steering wheel. Despite these apparently lethal shortcomings he got us home safely and was a really nice friendly guy.

Heliopolis, where we are staying with Yvonne is in the same suburb that Hosni Mubarak's residence is situated, though her appartment is rather less ostentatious.

We let ourselves into Yvonne's flat and had a bath: sheer bliss and after a while felt we could brave the outside world. The pollution is unbelievable. It's incredibly dusty and there are unbelievable levels of air pollution caused mainly by car fumes. Cairo has at least 20 million inhabitants, but doesn't seem to have an effective public transport system (there's certainly no subway/Metro in most suburban areas) and there are no obvious bus stops/routes. the easiest way to get around is therefore by taxis.

On our first afternoon we went for a short walk and purchased bread, coffee and some fruit. Yvonne got home about half 4 and we had a pleasant evening catching up on our respective doings and talking about cultural differences, particularly the way that society is so biaised against women and illegitimate children. Unless the father acknowledges illegitimate kids they have no citizenship, no rights, no education, no health care and little future. (There's a court case at the moment where a woman who successfully lodged for paternity in one court has just had it quashed on his appeal, but she is appealing again. The courts won't admit DNA evidence as proof of paternity: other men have to corroborate her story. ( they're all quite happy to use pcs, moble phones and cable TV, but DNA is a step too far)).

We went into town lthe following night with Yvonne and some of the other teachers at the Canadian school and went to a "jazz club". The musicians were pretty competent, but it was covers of UK and US rock & roll/pop classics with jazzy improvisations thrown in. Pretty good and a really pleasant evening, despite getting lost on the way in. Interesting to note that Cairo does not have a ban on smoking in public buildings: they smoke shisha pipes everywhere. The smoke in the jazz club was pretty bad: even the smokers found it unpleasant.

We went to the main market in Cairo on Friday and wandered up and down the narrow lanes of the souk. It was probably a mistake to arrive at 12 noon on Friday, just as prayers were commencing in the main mosque and traders were taking their prayer mats into the narrow alleys. The noise, smell and general buzz/chaos was intense though the way they had made the place cooler and shadier than the world outside was good. We didn't buy anything as we had nothing really in mind and found that being repeatedly harassed to look at x/y/z (rubbish that we definitely didn't want), prevented us from browsing in the more interesting corners. You could buy everything from tourist tat to spices cooking utensils, electrical goods, high quality jewellery and silks. Defeated we headed for a coffee house, Fishawi's (open continuously for 200 years apart from during Ramadan) and had some mint tea.

Willy started to feel ill - a cold, probably due to the re-circulated air on the plane, so we took a taxi back to Yvonne's. We'd been invited to a rooftop barbeque by one of Yvonne's colleagues and her husband, so Yvonne, her flat mate and myself left Willy, who was feeling ill and miserable, to sleep it off. I had a lovely evening drinking cocktails made with fresh strawberries, eating wonderful South African food, as Gaby and Stiefan are both South African, and blethering till the wee small hours. Stiefan drove us home, which was nice - also demonstrating either courage or madness in dealing with Cairenes on the road on their own terms!

On Saturday Willy was a bit better so we went to see The Citadel of Saladin in the centre of Cairo and went into the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (very impressive architecture and craftmanship). From there to Al Azhar Park - a beautiful new park (funded by Aga Khan Trust) , an oasis of peace, with running water, pools and greenery in the madness that is Cairo. We lunched by the "Lake", which was really a big pond (about 50 metres in diameter), under umbrellas beside a tiled pool: very Moorish, very civilised.

On the way back, took vast quantities of Egyptian pounds out of an ATM, so we could pay in wads of notes for our next trip. Sunday we stayed home and waited for our cruise tickets to be couriered to us: wonderful service. Yvonne has a travel agent contact who has given us a good deal on a Nile cruise ship with some trips thrown in. After all the organising we've done over the last few months, it's been really nice to have someone else do the donkey work. (plus of course we have a problem with communicating anything but the most basic information).

The itinerary is: sleeper to Luxor, then a big cruise boat on the river up as far as Aswan, then the sleeper back. It's over 1000 km from Cairo to Aswan, so it's a 14 hour train ride. Details will be revealed in the next thrilling installment (possibly our last?)

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19th March 2007

Willy, what's that big pointy thing over there?
A great blog... though seven days late in arriving. You really have adapted well to the egyptian concept of time! Can't believe the last blog is imminent - make it a good one. Give us the dirt... we can take it! (exit singing: 'See you later the Nile crocodile)

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